The rivalry between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos has become one of the best in the history of the UFC.
In their two previous meetings, each man has been able to settle the other with his dominant strength. In their first clash at UFC on Fox 1, it was "Cigano's" overhand right that leveled Velasquez and ended his reign as heavyweight champion. One year later, the AKA-trained fighter would have his revenge—in prolonged and brutal fashion—as he reclaimed the strap by drubbing dos Santos for 25 minutes in their rematch at UFC 155.
On Saturday night at UFC 166, the best two heavyweight fighters in MMA stepped into the Octagon for the third time to complete one of the most epic trilogies in MMA. While it was Velasquez looking for revenge when they collided in Las Vegas last December, it would be "JDS" looking to prove his loss was a fluke this time around.
The 29-year-old cited issues outside of the cage and a physical breakdown from overtraining as the reason for his poor performance in the rematch and vowed things would be much different in their third meeting. While the Brazilian was hungry to reclaim the heavyweight title, the champion was simply too much.
In nearly a mirror image of their second fight at UFC 155, Velasquez dismantled dos Santos in brutal fashion. While the former champion found a home for his power with more frequency this time around, the nonstop pressure and attack of Velasquez overwhelmed him. The 31-year-old Mexican-American champion completed the trilogy in impressive fashion as he stopped dos Santos in the final round of the tilt to retain his heavyweight title.
There would be another grudge settled in the co-main event as Daniel Cormier and Roy Nelson squared off to handle their business. The two men had been exchanging barbs for months, and despite the former Olympian's intention to drop down to the light heavyweight division, he chose to stick around the heavyweight ranks for one more fight in order to face the former TUF winner.
With the one-shot put away power "Big Country" possesses, those are dangerous dice to roll. Ultimately, Cormier's gamble paid off as he defeated Nelson via unanimous decision. The AKA-trained fighter mixed up his wrestling and striking to keep the savvy veteran out of rhythm and worked a flawless game plan throughout the 15-minute affair.
In addition to the heavyweight action at the top of the card there was plenty of ruckus to be had at UFC 166. The sold-out crowd at the Toyota Center in Houston was rocking as they were treated to a blistering display of face-punching and well-timed violence inside the cage, including what will possibly go down as the most entertaining fight in UFC history between Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez.
Much like every big card under the UFC banner, there were collections of fighters who stepped up to the plate and some who most likely wish they had never shown up to the event at all. In the same turn, there were also several curious happenings on Saturday night because what would a UFC event be without a little bit of curious sprinkled on top?
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from UFC 166.
Who is going to beat Cain Velasquez? That is the question coming out of UFC 166.
The reigning, undisputed heavyweight champion added another entry on his already impressive resume by defeating Junior dos Santos to close out their epic trilogy. The California-based fighter is well known for his unlimited cardio, but he took that element to the next level on Saturday night in Houston.
Until the bout was stopped in the fifth round, Velasquez brought nonstop pressure. He tagged dos Santos with big shots on the feet then smothered him against the cage to neutralize the Brazilian's power. With his victory over dos Santos at UFC 166, Velasquez elevated his status and created a tremendous amount of distance between the "next best" fighters in the division.
Upon the conclusion of the event, UFC President Dana White told Joe Rogan that Fabricio Werdum would likely get the next opportunity to face the champion.
Daniel Cormier may be heading down into light heavyweight waters, but he made his final showing at heavyweight a solid one. The former Olympian used a mixture of his proven wrestling skills and his increasing striking abilities to earn a unanimous decision victory over Nelson.
With his victory over "Big Country," the Louisiana native keeps his undefeated record intact and puts himself in a great position to land in the upper-tier of the 205-pound weight class. While his request for an immediate title shot with champion Jon Jones coming to fruition is doubtful, he will certainly face a fellow contender in his first showing in the light heavyweight division.
There is somewhat of a backup in the line for title opportunities at 205 pounds. With Glover Teixeira getting the next shot and recent challenger Alexander Gustafsson possibly getting his second shot after that, Cormier will most likely have to do some work before he gets a chance to fight for UFC gold.
While Cormier vs. Nelson was a solid clash, the fight that came before it was a war.
Gilbert Melendez was coming into his bout with Diego Sanchez to send a big message to the lightweight division and he was absolutely successful in doing so. Melendez and Sanchez engaged in one of the best fights to ever take place under the UFC banner, both men standing their ground and throwing with terrible intentions.
While Sanchez had some strong moments in the final frame, the bout was all Melendez. The former Strikeforce champion used his speed and timing to punish Sanchez as he moved forward to attack. "The Dream" is notorious for swarming in and throwing wild punches, and Melendez tempered that storm with precision.
As the former TUF winner unleashed big hooks, Melendez pinged him with crisp counters and battered the former title challenger for the opening 10 minutes of the bout. Sanchez would eventually catch him with an uppercut, but "El Nino's" toughness may be his greatest strength, and the 31-year-old recovered and fired back.
His victory over Sanchez on Saturday may be his first under the UFC banner, but his performance should have him standing on the doorstep of another title shot.
There is a strange stigma attached to Gabriel Gonzaga. Where the Brazilian was once a title contender to the heavyweight crown, recent years have come with mixed results. While the term "gatekeeper" is used in abundance in MMA, Gonzaga has earned his place in the highest order. If you are able to defeat him, the road to the upper tier of the heavyweight division opens up, but if Gonzaga works you over, then to the back of the deck you go.
"Napao" has been looking sharp as of late and that momentum continued at UFC 166 where he knocked out Shawn Jordan in the first round of their scrap. While defeating Jordan won't put Gonzaga back in the upper tier, back-to-back victories and success in four of his last five is pretty impressive for a guy who lost his way out of the UFC two years ago.
Moving on to 125-pound action.
The flyweight title picture is starting to heat up, and on Saturday night John Dodson reclaimed his place in the hunt. The 29-year-old scored a highlight reel knockout over Darrell Montague to kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card.
The victory is Dodson's first since coming up short in his bid to take the flyweight title when he was bested by Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 6 in January. "Mighty Mouse's" cardio proved too much for Dodson to handle, and the Jackson's MMA fighter was eager to get things back on track.
He accomplished that task in impressive fashion by knocking out the former Tachi Palace champion in the first round of their tilt. With the win, Dodson will take a big step toward another title shot and, at the very least, guarantee his next opponent will also come from the upper tier of the 125-pound weight class.
***A fighter’s first impression in the UFC is crucial, and Kyoji Horiguchi made an impressive debut at UFC 166. The 23-year-old battered TUF alum Dustin Pague en route to scoring the second round stoppage. Horiguchi rebounded from a shaky opening frame by flooring Pague with a powerful left hook in the second round. Once Pague hit the canvas, it was only a matter of time before referee Herb Dean stepped in and called an end to the beating.
***After 17 months away from the Octagon, Tony Ferguson made a triumphant comeback on Saturday night. The former TUF winner suffered zero ring rust and looked better than ever as he submitted Mike Rio in the opening round of their tilt on the preliminary portion of the card. After stinging Rio with a left hand, “El Cucuy” locked up a D’arce choke to end the fight.
***Welterweight Adlan Amagov looked impressive once again as he picked up his second victory under the UFC banner by dispatching TJ Waldburger in the first round of their tilt. The Russian’s nasty power proved to be too much for the Texan.
***In WMMA action, former Strikeforce bantamweight champion Sarah Kaufman and Jessica Eye put on an exciting tilt. Both were making their official UFC debuts and the fight was a solid back-and-forth affair. The Ohio native ultimately edged out the Canadian via split decision on the judge’s scorecards, but it was a close fight that could have went either way.
At the highest level of MMA every fight is important, but George Sotiropoulos really needed a victory at UFC 166. While the Australian was once burning up the ranks, winning seven consecutive bouts on his way to title contention, the 36-year-old has suffered a painful reversal of fortune.
The former coach of TUF: Smashes had his moments on Saturday against K.J. Noons, but "King Karl" was able to do enough damage to pull out the victory on the judge's scorecards. The loss to the former Elite XC champion makes it four consecutive notches in the wrong column for Sotiropoulos and could very well lead to him being cut by the UFC.
The lightweight division is one of the most competitive and deepest collectives under the UFC banner, and fighters who experience a rough patch the likes of what Sotiropoulos is in the midst of typically results in a release.
Another fighter who will likely be facing unemployment is Nate Marquardt. The former Strikeforce welterweight champion suffered a leveling at the heavy hands of Hector Lombard in the former Olympic judoka's 170-pound debut. The loss is the third consecutive setback for the Colorado-based fighter and will put him on tremendously shaky ground with the promotion.
Where the 34-year-old was a title contender in the middleweight division in 2010, the last three years have been tumultuous. He was released from the UFC in the aftermath of being pulled from his scheduled bout with Rick Story at UFC on Versus 4 in 2011. The incident was Marquardt's second since joining the UFC in 2005, and President Dana White wasted no time in cutting him from the roster following the situation in Pittsburgh.
Marquardt would go on to win the Strikeforce welterweight title but then dropped it in his next outing against Tarec Saffiedine back in January. After the San Jose promotion closed up shop for good, Marquardt was brought back into the UFC fold but was knocked out by Jake Ellenberger in his comeback bout at UFC 158 in March.
With that in mind, Marquardt's second run with the UFC has been disappointing and the loss to Lombard will certainly put his job in jeopardy.
While Velasquez vs. dos Santos III will be remembered as another five-round beating, the bout was ultimately stopped by "JDS" knocking himself sideways when he blasted his head into the mat. Strange but true.
Tim Boetsch is quickly becoming the unluckiest man in MMA. While "The Barbarian" picked up the victory over TUF alum C.B. Dollaway on Saturday, the Maine resident suffered two unfortunate eye pokes in the process. "The Doberman" was deducted a point after the second poke found a home on Boetsch's left eye which resulted in two of the judges scoring the bout 30-26 in Boetsch's favor.
The victory over the former Arizona State University wrestling standout breaks a two-fight skid for the 32-year-old, a rough patch that began when he was defeated by Costa Philippou at UFC 155 last December. While Boetsch was out to an early lead, an accidental headbutt and a low blow took the wind out of his sails. Philippou turned up the heat and scored the TKO in the final round of the bout.
The human body can do some strange things when punches to the head are involved. I know we've covered this topic a few times in the past, but anytime a fighter gets a case of "robot arms" or the notorious "stanky leg", it is always worth mentioning.
The incident on Saturday night came at the expense of featherweight Jeremy Larsen. Despite landing a big shot of his own during a heated, second-round exchange with Andre Fili, it was the Team Alpha Male fighter that landed the punch that did the most damage. Fili stung Larsen with a right hand to the temple and the impact forced Larsen's brain to send a message to his legs to do the "chicken dance."
While Larsen tried to walk it out, his legs were in full rebellion, and he dropped to the ground once his body hit the cage. From that position, Fili only needed to put a few final shots into play before the referee stepped in to stop the fight.
Staying on funky physical reactions, Darrell Montague hit the canvas in crazy fashion at UFC 166. The former Tachi Palace champion made his official Octagon debut against John Dodson and received a nasty welcome to the UFC in the process.
The Jackson's MMA-trained fighter was tagging up Montague at will throughout the short affair until Dodson landed a vicious left hand that caused a disconnect in Montague's brain. The lights flickered until they officially went out and he toppled face first to the canvas. Hitting the mat woke him up, and Montague then shot a single leg takedown on the referee who had swarmed in to stop the fight.
It was a solid attempt but not the overall look Montague was hoping to make in his first showing in the UFC.
While there was nothing strange about the fight, I want to end this column by reminding the fighting faithful that Melendez vs. Sanchez actually happened, and it was pure violent awesomeness.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.